Zac Brown Band’s John Driskell Hopkins: The Bassist Uncagedby Rick SuchowThere is success and there is success. As I write this, the number one album sitting squarely at the top of the Billboard album chart is Zac Brown Band's Uncaged, and it has lightning-bolted up there in the album"s first-week debut. It's the latest amazing chapter in this Atlanta-based band’s storybook ride up to the top of the music industry. If nothing else, consider the 50-plus award nominations they’ve garnered since just 2009, which includes nods from the Grammys, the Academy of County Music, the American Music Awards, the Country Music Awards, and the CMT Awards. In 2010, the group won the prestigious Grammy Award for Best New Artist. And while the band may appear to be an overnight success, in reality it has been years in the making.
At the core of Zac Brown Band’s sound is their skillful bassist John Driskell Hopkins, who anchors the music with bass playing that is lean and tight. Hopkins’ bass always serves the song, yet gets adventurous when he feels compelled to do so. Make no mistake, the Zac Brown Band is not your daddy’s fiddle-playing country band, although there are elements of that; stylistically they cover it all. On the new album, for example, they seamlessly weave together songs of riff heavy rock (“Uncaged”), Jamaican rhythms (“Island Song”), and good-ol’ down home knee-slappers (“The Wind”). Hopkins’ bass gives all of it an air of authoritative authenticity; he knows what to play, what not to play, and how to glue it all together– not to mention the vocals he adds to the band’s beautifully multi-layered harmonies.
Born in Texas in 1971 and raised in Georgia, John’s life in music started early: singing in church, piano lessons in the fifth grade, picking up guitar and bass in high school. He was also heavily involved in theatre, and graduated Florida State University in 1993 with a degree in General Theatre. College would be followed by years of playing in bar bands, recording, writing and producing, and John finally met Zac Brown in 1998. The two formed an immediate friendship and musical collaboration. Interestingly enough, John did not originally expect to be the band’s permanent bassist when he later added his low-end to Zac’s demos. “I learned that Zac was in need of a bass player,” says Hopkins in his bio. “I volunteered to sit in until he found a permanent player. I truly believe that my intentions at the time were merely to get out and have some fun with my buddy, and step aside when he found someone to play bass. What I didn’t really expect is that we would all play together so effortlessly. After a few weeks, I said to Zac, ‘If you’re not still looking, then I’m staying.”
Stay he did, and the rest is history, as they say. I caught up with John shortly after Uncaged was released to the world, and was grateful that he found some time to share his thoughts with me in the midst of the ZBB whirlwind. To my friends in the bass community, may I present the man who’s been rattling your speakers lately: John Driskell Hopkins.
The band has had a lot of major success in a relatively short time. How are you handling all the attention?
I feel like I have the best of both worlds. When we’re out on the road surrounded by devout fans who have gone out of their way to come see us perform, people look at me like I’m a total rock star. When I’m back home in North Atlanta surrounded by purveyors of fine suburban paradise, people look at me like l’m a medicated biker in an Elmo shirt. It’s really wonderful to get to experience all the excitement and exhilaration that comes with the success we’ve seen and still be able to maintain an anonymous presence in a relatively normal home environment.
Billboard has called Uncaged “the best country release of 2012″ so far, and is currently at the top of the charts. Did you feel like you had a great record in the making as you were recording it?
I feel like Uncaged is our boldest record so far. This band grows a little bit with every single performance and in larger bits with each album. We expect a lot out of each other and out of each record. We strive for greatness in everything we do and I’m really pleased that Billboard thinks so much of the record. When we put the finishing touches on “Goodbye In Her Eyes”, I truly believed that we had something special.
Greg Allman just sat in with the band at one of your shows in Camden. What was that like?
No one in southern rock and roll has made a bigger impact on me musically than The Allman Brothers Band. I have strived to emulate Gregg Allman in many ways as a vocalist. When you get the chance to play with one of your heroes, it can almost be surreal. His banter and camaraderie is instantly disarming. He is a cool dude with a kind, fun demeanor. When he spins around on that B3 bench and growls that first note into the mic, you have to slap yourself and say “SHIT! That’s Gregg Allman!”. It was awesome.
Your production / engineering abilities played a big role in your becoming a member of Zac Brown Band. Would you say you’re a producer at heart?
I’m an artist at heart. That may sound encompassing, but it’s not a cop out. I started singing at age 3. I’ve been playing in rock bands since I was in high school. I have a Theatre degree from FSU. I owe a lot of my success to my work ethic. I’ve never been afraid of the task ahead. Sometimes, that task is assembling and running a sound system. Sometimes, it’s drilling through the frame of the airport shuttle so the trailer makes it over the mountain. When I made my first album, I bought a recorder instead of studio time. Producing and engineering comes naturally to me, but it doesn’t take the place of creating and performing.
How does having a producer’s ear affect your approach to playing bass with the band?
It affects my approach to everything. I really try to stick to the “less is more” philosophy. We have 7 guys in the band now and it’s really important to not step on each other musically. We like a big powerful presence on stage, so I’m rarely straying from the kick drum when I’m writing my parts. On the other hand, we’ve been stretching out melodically, so some of my bass lines have begun to dance a little. The jam band sensibility is really starting to grow in us. We’re still maintaining some general parameters, but our audience is starting to embrace the times when the parameters get ignored. As a producer, it’s an opportunity to sit back and watch what develops before making hard judgements. Creatively, however, it’s a very exciting time for us.
Tell me about your gear: basses, live rig, effects, strings, etc.
I play Modulus basses, primarily. My “go to” is a Flea Bass with my daughter’s name (GRACE) in the fretboard. I modified another Flea as well and have it tuned BEAD. I asked Modulus to build me a P bass for the 2010 Grammys and they have added it to their full time lineup. (The Funk Persuasion) It really sounds great on the island music we do. It’s got a lot of classic P characteristics, but adds a thick, low undertone.
My upright is a Bjarton Swingmaster cutaway bass. It’s very thumpy, but it’s a joy to play and it looks incredible. I also use a Taylor acoustic bass (discontinued) and a Kala Uke Bass during our acoustic set.
I play through a Peavey VB3 and 2 Peavey 8 X 10 cabs. When it’s open and un-effected, the tube driven VB3 is a lot like an old SVT. I like having the option, however, of enabling the graphic EQ when I’m playing upright. Peavey is very dependable and I have been playing their bass gear since 1987.
D’Addario strings. Big ones…
What are your preferences regarding volume when playing live? What is the general level the band plays live, and where do you like to hear your bass in the mix?
We have Martin Audio’s finest sound system. No one ever has trouble hearing us in the house, so stage volumes have become more reasonable over the years. Back in the day, stage volumes used to peel our faces off. I do very little soloing during our set, so I like my tone to be thick and heavily concentrated in the subs. I want the subs to be an extension of my own stage cabs. Big bass. All the time.
I have to be able to feel the rumble to be satisfied on stage. We have been using in-ear monitors for many years now and I depend on the rump shaking qualities of the cabs a lot. My monitor mix is dominated by drums, bass and my voice. After that, it’s Zac’s voice and guitars. Everybody else comes next and they are generally panned hard left and right based on their stage position.
What are the basses you’ve used in the past, or plan to use in the future?
My first bass was a Yamaha RBX 300. I played a Peavey Dyna Bass for a while and then a Warwick Fortress 5 string. When I started playing in the ZBB, I was using a Music Man Stingray and my Modulus Flea. The more we played, the more I defaulted to the Flea. Eventually, Modulus took over my whole rig. I just haven’t found a neck that feels better to me than a Modulus. When appropriate, you might see me playing my ’58 Fender P bass or my Custom Peavey bass by Mike Lipe.
This quote is from your Zac website bio: “Being in this band has taught me so much about myself. It has made me realize a lot about who I am and who I want to be.” Can you expand on that? Who are you and who do you want to be?
Being in this band makes you fearless. When something isn’t right, it’s often fear that keeps us from changing it. When we can face our fears, the sky is the limit. Life gave me a massive beating while this band was paying its dues. Just when I thought my whole world was going to fall apart, the stars aligned and everything changed. I’ve always surrounded myself with good, real people with honorable intentions and meaningful goals. I always will. What I have learned is that priorities and boundaries are very important. You can’t please everybody, and you have to be happy with yourself first if you expect to do anybody any good.
I am a family man. My wife and 3 daughters mean absolutely everything to me. My new daughters names (FAITH & HOPE) are being added to fretboards as we speak. I want to be respected as a musician and a songwriter. My new solo album is being backed up by Balsam Range and will be predominantly bluegrass. I want to get reacquainted with my Theatre degree and do some acting on the side. I want to get involved in my community and be a strong, present father for my girls. I want to be a better bass player, a better singer, a better bandmate, a better husband and a better daddy.
What’s one thing about Zac (him, not the band) that people generally don’t know or wouldn’t expect?
People may think Zac is just an island soaked, chicken eating, bearded redneck that shoots things and then cooks them in coconut milk and cayenne. He is far more than that. He’s very picky about his jeans. His favorite artist right now is Adele. He loves being on the cutting edge of technology. I ride Harley-Davidson. Zac rides Ducati. He’s on an alkaline free, mostly vegan diet that allows fish.
Zac is hip.
Zac always has his finger on the pulse of what is happening in pop culture and he mostly ignores it. It’s not easy to be so informed and so unaffected at the same time. He is an information sponge. His unique approach to life is based to an incredible ability to use the information in his head efficiently, creatively, and boldly. He strives to do absolutely everything in his life with excellence. I’m proud to know him.